From Doo-Wop to Hip-Hop: Interview with two generations of African- American Poets: Afaa Michael Weaver and Major Jackson
- Publication date
Doo-Wop to Hip-Hop: Interview with two generations of African-
Poets: Afaa Michael Weaver and Major Jackson ( 2009)
Michael Weaver, 58 and Major Jackson, 40 are two major AfricanAmerican
poets from two different generations, but they both continually feed from
their shared heritage, and the continuum of the Black experience in America.
Weaver, a professor of English at Simmons College in Boston, a recent
Pushcart Prize winner, and the author the critically acclaimed poetry collection:
“ Plum Flower Dance” (U/Pitt), and Major Jackson, the authorof
“Hoops,” an asst. professor at the University of Vermont and a core faculty member
at the Bennington Writing Seminars, met for a filmed discussion at the Somerville
Community Access TV studios. The show was moderated by GloriaMindock
(Cervena Barva Press) and produced by Doug Holder (Ibbetson St.Press).
started off the discussion by going back to his native Baltimore in 1970.
This was a time when he dropped out of the university, got a job at a steel
mill, and started to pen his seminal poems. Later he joined the military,married
his first wife,but was destined to live a radically different life than his early
was born in Philadelphia, and studied to be an accountant. He got an internship
in which he was spending up to 80 hours a week with spreadsheets. After
college he worked at an arts center in the city in the role of finance manager.
He said: ” I was happy when I was fired.” He had taken some poetry courses
in college, and he started to program poetry events at the center. He soon
realized it was the arts that touched him spiritually, and he eventually made
poetry a part of his everyday life.
talked of his early days in East Baltimore in the 50’s and 60’s. He sort of
free- associated about mowing grass with push lawnmowers and the rituals of
his youth, like using toothbrushes to clean his shoes before a night out on the
town. Weaver said: “Baltimore was a very Southern city. We weren’t allowed
to shop in the stores in downtown Baltimore—the line between black and
white were clearly drawn.”
said his father’s family was from Southern farming stock, and his dad had
the philosophy that “ Children should she be seen not heard.” Weaver learned
to become an “isolated” learner, he recollected. In
1963 he was bused to a white school, which caused a great deal of anxiety for
the young poet. It was hard to be in a place where he was not welcomed. He
was always glad and relieved to be back on his own side of town. At the time
his scope of experience was limited. He thought the whole world was Black.
Weaver laughed: “I watched “ Leave it to Beaver,” and thought that family
was just like mine, except they were white.”
said even though Philadelphia was north of Baltimore, it still possessed a
Southern sensibility. This was confirmed when he spent his summers in Nashville,
Tennessee as a boy and he experienced the same “rhythms” as the South.
described himself as a hyper-aware kid. He was tuned in to the music and
the culture of the time. Hip- Hop started to appear in 1978-82, and drugs started
appearing in the mix. There was a potent combination of rich culture and
tragic lives. He sadly watched the erosion of his neighborhood over the years.
work is informed by his observations of people trying to survive under
extreme stress. Anything that cuts humans down, be it in an urban or rural
setting, will find room in his work, he said. All in all Jackson is grateful to have
grown up in Philadelphia. He had an appreciation of the speech, jargon, and
music of the milieu.
reflected on his neighborhood:” People all knew each other. The guy at
the corner drug store and the drug dealer on the corner.” Jackson knew who
to avoid and who could act as a role model.
brought the discussion back to the pivotal year 1968. This was theyear
Martin Luther King was assassinated. Weaver’s younger siblings were born
in 1969 and 1973. He said he was able to see the effect the legacy of those
years had on them, and how it changed them. Weaver vividly remembers
his mother crying like a proverbial baby when MLK was shot. Weaver
went further back to the 1965 riots in Baltimore. He remembered the intrusion
of the National Guard in his neighborhood. He can recall whites roaming
the streets looking for blacks to beat up. He remembers hearing gunfire
from his two- story row house. Weaver said:” It was horrifying. The cities
never recovered from the 60’s—and later they became plagued by drugs.
The post-industrial era brought the loss of blue-collar jobs. Crime flooded
reminisced about the downfall of Milton Ave, where he grew up. Blockbusting
tactics by real estate developers drove whites out. The patterns of
parenting changed. There were more divorced parents. The old family structure
fell. More men of color were incarcerated.
eventually left the steel mill and worked for Proctor& Gamble. Once,while
driving to work he took a route down Milton Ave. with a friend and saw a man
shot down dead. This really hit home as to how the times had changed.
said that music had a decided influence on him and his work. On one hand
he celebrates the music of Elvis, but realizes the roots of Rock’n Roll is with
the Blues, which was African-American music. He was introduced to black history
by an aunt who gave him a history book that traced the long list of accomplishments
of the black race through the centuries. He learned about celebrated
African Americans like Robert Hayden, poets Gwendolyn Brooks,Langston
Hughes as well others. He also loved the music of the 60’s like James Brown
and his anthem of a song “I’m black and I’m proud.”
said the “big book” when he was growing up was the bible. He had a recent
discussion with the poet James Tate, who also touted the influence of the
“good book.” Later his mother bought encyclopedias from the supermarket for
25 cents a piece. As for the Blues, it came naturally. The cadence of his father’s
speech was very Blues- like, Weaver said. Weaver loved the Temptations,
The Supremes, The Impressions and other groups of the era. He wore
highbrow collars, there was “ a soundtrack to my life” he smiled. Hip-Hop hit
the scene when he was 30 or so, so he was able to appreciate it.
talked about the changes in the culture due to the turmoil in the cities.
He said the parlance of the Black man changed. The language used was of
the type that would not be tolerated years before. The Civil Rights Movement
opened up what was an essentially insular black society. From this instability
came Gangsta Rap, and the idolization of the drug culture.
through his elders, was exposed to the music of the 60’s. He used to listen
to a radio show hosted by “Butterball” that played that genre of music. Books
were ubiquitous in his household. His grandmother built a sprawling library
in the home from used books that she bought. Literature was important.
His stepfather’s sister worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art,and
Jackson recollected: “ I made it my playground” He had the images of Duchamp,
Lichtenstein, and others seared into his nascent consciousness.
grandfather had a deep appreciation for African-American music, and his grandmother
loved Gospel. He got to see the great vibraphonist Lionel Hampton
with his grandfather. He had a piano in his house, and he too had a soundtrack
to his life.
said the avant-garde musician Sun Ra lived a few blocks away in Germantown.
He said: “: You could hear his group play—unlike anything I heard
before. It was free jazz, a big band sound, way outside the norm.”Jackson
said he appreciated Sun Ra’s journey, a man who created this
of the musician as an alien being. Both poets agreed that mythology
that artists like Sun Ra draped around themselves was a reaction to
a world that rejected them and made them suffer. Sun Ra, and others of
ilk didn’t want to be part of a society such as this, and in effect divorced themselves
both men talked of mentors. And it was clear without mentors these men’s
lives would be quite different. Weaver defines a mentor as” A friend who reserves
the right to tell you what to do.” Jackson mentioned Amiri Baraka and Sonia
Sanchez as well as Weaver, as major influences in his writing life.
talked about the poet Lucille Clifton who advised him to read X.J.Kennedy’s
“Introduction to Poetry” and gently criticized and encouraged his fledgling
attempts at poetry. Both men are now in positions to give something back,
and they do it as teachers, and in other roles. And hopefully, new generations
will flow back and forth and nurture each other, like they have with
Afaa Michael Weaver and Major Jackson.
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